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‘Secrets of the Force’ an oral history of ‘Star Wars’

July 28, 2021
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“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away … “

With those words, on an opening crawl that crept its way up from the bottom of movie screens all over the world, the “Star Wars” phenomenon was born. From those beginnings, an entertainment dynasty was born, one consisting of films, books, television shows, comic books, action figures, video games and literally any other creative content that one might be able to imagine.

But how much do you really know about how this phenomenon came to be?

In “Secrets of the Force: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Wars” (St. Martin’s Press, $29.99), authors Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman have attempted to provide a clearinghouse of sorts, an assemblage of interviews and other ephemera that covers the breadth of the Star Wars experience. Pulling from a variety of sources from across more than four decades, the book attempts to tell the entire story.

As to how successful it is? Well … that depends on your perspective.

There’s no disputing the thoroughness of research done by Gross and Altman; the contents of this book have been pulled from a nigh-uncountable trove of resources. These are words taken directly from the horse’s mouth (you know, if George Lucas was a horse); the book is packed with thoughtful insights regarding the birth and growth of what would become the global phenomenon.

It should be noted that the heavy reliance on already extant sources means that for many hardcore fans, much of this information will prove already familiar. However, when I say “hardcore,” I mean HARDCORE – casual and even avid fans are likely to learn all manner of new things about the beloved franchise as they make their way through.

Now, it probably won’t surprise you that a large chunk of the book is devoted to the original trilogy – those are the films that have spent the most time in the cultural consciousness. And for many fans, it is that chunk that will prove the most enlightening – we get a lot of information about the development of “Star Wars,” both in creative terms and in terms of studio involvement.

We’re walked through the many, many drafts of Lucas’s first script – I’ll confess that I had no idea just how much the story shifted and evolved over the course of years of rewrites. And we get to follow along as Industrial Light and Magic is born, created solely to make the effects necessary to bring “Star Wars” to life. These people literally invented moviemaking technology on the fly, techniques we take for granted today that were created specifically because no one had ever tried to do what Lucas and company were attempting to make happen.

We get to see the studio’s skepticism as to whether this movie would even get finished, let alone released. We get to see Lucas’s shrewd maneuvering to maintain control of potential sequels and to get his hands on the merchandising dollars, which he so presciently predicted would be significant (though no one really knew just how much money was going to be made there). And we get to watch as the groundswell of support turns “Star Wars” into one of the biggest box office successes in movie history, as well as making its unknown leads – Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher – into outright superstars.

From there, we’re guided through the subsequent installments of the original trilogy – as well as the retroactive mythmaking that Lucas has engaged in almost from the get-go – as those films continue to push the franchise forward into staggeringly unprecedented success.

The prequels and sequels – as well as the TV shows and other properties – get some attention, but they’re almost treated as a bit of an afterthought; “Secrets of the Force” is very much focused on the origins of the series and those first three films. One gets the sense that the rest of it is of considerably less interest to the authors.

A book like “Secrets of the Force” could easily have been twice as long – it’s clear that there was a wealth of material still available to access. But the truth is that even now, decades after their initial release, it is the original trilogy that holds the most interest for the vast majority of fans. Gross and Altman are clearly aware of that, and craft their book accordingly.

As someone with an affinity for the “Star Wars” universe, but without the deep-seated obsession that many carry for it, I was engaged by “Secrets of the Force.” There was a lot there that I didn’t know, and the deep dive into the development of the first film and the fallout from its explosive success was both informative and entertaining. But I’ll admit that I lost steam after that initial engagement – a feeling that I’d wager was shared by the authors. The post-original trilogy chapters are … fine, but not much more than that. The driving energy seems to dissipate once those first three films have been addressed.

“Secrets of the Force” is everything that its subtitle promises – a complete, uncensored, unauthorized oral history of “Star Wars” – but the truth is that while the beginnings are fascinating, what follows proves to be largely a product of diminishing returns. Fans will likely find plenty to like, but don’t expect too much depth beyond the original trilogy.

Last modified on Wednesday, 28 July 2021 08:05

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